The head of all the Volkswagen Group empire, Ferdinand Piech, is quoted as saying he regrets loosing designer Peter Schreyer to Kia. And when you look at what his leadership has done for the Korean company’s design—making it amongst the most cohesive and attractive in the world—and market growth, it is easy to see why. One of his latest creations is the second-generation Forte sedan, which is a real grabber, visually.
It looks very much a premium car, which is important as Kia changes its image around the globe. Elegant and expressive, taut and interesting, it is one of the nicest looking smaller sedans on the market. Inside the design is excellent as well, and overall quality is above average for the class, though the leather seats feel stiff and cheap; it would be nice to see a rich cloth on upmarket models like the EX test vehicle. Regardless, the Forte is incredibly roomy, front and back, with a decadent selection of standard and optional equipment like air cooling and memory for the powered driver’s chair, heated front and rear seats and steering wheel, smart key entry, a huge power roof, outside “welcome” lights in the door handles and an expensive LCD display between the instruments that nicely complements the intuitive UVO infotainment interface, which would be great if it worked properly with an iPod (not that many people own those things). Also included are HID headlamps, LED taillamps, dual zone climate control and even vents for rear seat occupants.
Kia has done these sorts of thing well for quite a while though; where they’ve dropped the ball is on the way a car or crossover drives, with subpar dynamics and some weak powertrains. Neither of the negatives applies to the Forte, though; it is a really pleasant steer, with a pleasing ride/handling balance and refined engine and transmission combo. The EX’s powerplant is a direct-injection 2-liter four with outputs of 173hp and 154lb-ft of torque (base engine is a 1.8 with 148hp/131lb-ft), which spins eagerly to redline and emits upmarket inline 4-cylinder noises all the while. It has loads of torque low down in the rev range, and is almost Honda smooth. Ably abetting it is a refined six-speed automatic, whose shift logic is a great example of how to program a modern transmission. 0-60 comes up in under eight seconds, but fuel economy—as with everything tested from Kia and corporate partner Hyundai—doesn’t come close to the EPA ratings, with a real-world mixed average of 23.5mpg according to the Forte’s onboard computer.
The Kia handles well enough, with decent body control, and steering that is accurate and precise; while it has three settings for its weighting, two are easily ignored. Regardless, it is a far better tuned chassis than that of the Sorento, tested here. Most impressive is the Forte’s ride quality and refinement; despite very low profile 17-inch tires, it absorbs most all the bad stuff on our nation’s crappy roadways, and is amazingly quite for an “economy” car.
In fact, it is hard to think of the Forte in those terms. Here is a car with a level of equipment, refinement and aesthetic appeal that was the providence of only the high-end luxury brands of the 90s. Combined with the company’s excellent warranty and generally solid reputation for reliability and it is a class standout.
EPA ratings: 24/36mpg; 28 combined
Price as tested: $25,400
Here is what Kia has to say about the Forte.